Tuesday, July 01, 2014

`Its Cryptic American, Its Dated Beauty'

A reader in New York City sends me a postcard with a photograph by Louis Stettner on the front – “Man Near Manhole, Times Square, New York City” (1954). The image is almost an abstraction. Steam rises through the holes in a manhole cover and obscures the pedestrian’s left leg, leaving him one-legged. He’s headless, monolithic in a long cloth coat, and his white shirt and tie are barely visible. In the background, reduced to pure shape without detail, are a curb and sidewalk, a metal railing, a trash can and, in the upper left, another human figure, probably a woman. The photograph is quintessentially urban, something all of us have seen, while suggesting an infernal realm and recalling the opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), with the cab emerging from the steam. Eight years before Stettner took his photo, John Cheever published “The Sutton Place Story” (1946) in The New Yorker. Like Taxi Driver, it’s a child-in-jeopardy story, with touches of noir, a sensibility seldom associated with Cheever: 

“The day had got hot. A few low, swift clouds touched the city with shadow, and he could see the fast darkness travelling from block to block. The streets were crowded. He saw the city only in terms of mortal danger. Each manhole cover, excavation, and flight of stairs dominated the brilliance of the day like the reverse emphasis of a film negative, and he thought the crowds and the green trees in Central Park looked profane.” 

In Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Saul Bellow creates a slightly less threatening picture, also of New York City, and coins a suggestive synonym for “manhole”: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones.” And Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man (1952) flees cops and rioters through an open manhole in Harlem and sets up housekeeping underground: “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact.” And then there’s Karl Shapiro’s “Manhole Covers” (1962): 

“The beauty of manhole covers—what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable,
Not like the old electrum, chased and scored,
Mottoed and sculptured to a turn,
But notched and whelked and pocked and smashed
With the great company names
(Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States).
This rustproof artifact of my street,
Long after roads are melted away will lie
Sidewise in the grave of the iron-old world,
Bitten at the edges,
Strong with its cryptic American,
Its dated beauty.” 

Stettner is ninety-one years old. In 1999 he published a collection of his photos with the Whitmanesque title Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets (Flammarion). In fact, the title is adapted from King Henry IV, Part One (Act I, Scene 2). Henry V says to Falstaff: “Thou didst well; for wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it.” Stettner’s text is often Whitman/Wolfe/Sandberg-sentimental. Writing about his return to his native New York City in 1951, after six years in France, he says: “My photographs are acts of eloquent homage and deep remorse about the city. I am profoundly moved by its lyric beauty and horrified by its cruelty and suffering.” One wants to suggest to Stettner: “Shut up and shoot.” His images are often articulate as his words never are. A man crossing a manhole shows up in another photo included in Wisdom, also shot in 1954: “The Great White Way, Times Square, New York.”


Dave Lull said...

"Manhole Covers Placed This Afternoon On Bob Dylan Way":


B.R. said...

And Shakespeare directly borrowed from the Bible: Proverbs 1:20...
"La sagesse crie dans les rues..."